The first section of the Silk Road journey with Rally Tours NZ takes our adventurers from London to Istanbul, via Germany, Budapest, Serbia, Turkey.

Long flights never seem to get any easier, unless you can afford the luxury of an upgrade to Premium Economy, Business or First class, and that is not me. However Qantas, on this occasion, kept good time throughout the journey, and our arrival in London on a bright sunny spring morning was spectacular.

Our two expedition Landcruiser’s had been “rolled” as the shipping industry calls it, which means that, due to overloading, some containers that were booked on the sailing, didn’t make it on to the ship from Tauranga to Tilbury. A very pleasant and apologetic email from the shipping company kindly informed me of this a few days after the boat had sailed, with the next sailing being ten days down the track.

This meant that all going well, the vehicles would arrive in London the same day as my arrival. Not a good start, as it would surely delay our departure from London, and require alterations to our, already reasonably tight, itinerary.

My clients, Murray Taylor and his son Ross, from Wellington, were our only participants on this year’s Silk Road Expedition, and they arrived into London Heathrow exactly 24 hours after me. We “tubed” to the hotel in the early part of the day and set to organise a plan of activities for the next few days, based around the fact that our vehicles would not be available for collection for three days, effectively putting us two and a half days behind schedule.

Murray and Ross’s first real day in London was fully occupied with an open-air double-decker bus tour through most of the well-known areas of London, which for Murray was a trip down memory lane having lived and worked in London in the early eighties, but Ross’s first trip to this part of the world. He can now relate to all the names on a Monopoly game board.

Peter Franklin, my co-driver and trainee from last year’s Beijing to Paris expedition, joined us this evening. Pete has once again taken up the challenge, this time to co-drive the Silk Road.

Monday, and theoretically we should be crossing the English channel into France, but instead we picked up a rental SUV and headed in the wrong direction, to the Duxford Air Museum, to check out this amazing collection of mostly wartime aircraft. We easily filled in the afternoon looking at everything from the incredible Spitfire, to the “Blackbird” stealth bomber.

Our accommodation had been arranged by Ian Freestone, a historic rally car builder of some note who I came to know while he was competing on the Silver Fern Rally in New Zealand in 2008.

As usual, Ian insisted that we visit his small, actually very small, rally car prep workshop in the centre of Northampton before heading south to Dover, to see an Mk1 and a MK 2 Escort being built for the forthcoming Kenyan Rally championship.

The object of the excursion to Dover was to show the Taylors the Dover Castle. This well preserved and strategically located monument was saved from bombing during the war, as it served as a location marker for the German aircraft.

Our Landcruisers were being unloaded from the container the next morning at Dartford, just south of the Thames, near London. When we arrived at 11 am and they were ready to go.

 A quick inspection, a couple of signatures and we were heading south toward Dover to catch the cross-channel ferry to Calais. However, not all was well as the alternator light and other numerous lights were flashing on the dashboard of the 100 series and it was charging 19 volts which is not good. We came to the conclusion that perhaps it had been jump-started incorrectly and the new alternator had been spiked.

Once on firm ground again we headed into Belgium and almost got to the German border before dark, resting up for the night at a pleasant Best Western Hotel close to the autobahn in a smallish town called Herstal. 

Our object now was to make Istanbul by Sunday, in effect 3000km in four days, to get us back on schedule. Munich was our intended destination by days end, but the alternator issue raised its ugly head first thing, necessitating an alternator change on the forecourt of a friendly German Toyota dealer at Aachen.

With that problem sorted, but now short of our spare alternator, we headed down the Rhine valley to Stuttgart. Ross was keen to visit the amazing Mercedes Museum in Stuttgart, and we arrived there with just enough time to see most of the exhibits on the eight floors. It was still 220km to Munich when we left Stuttgart but with good roads and still a bit of daylight left it took just a bit over two hours to reach the hotel, after the most incredible electrical storm just short of the city.

Budapest was our next overnight destination, travelling via Salzburg, and Vienna. Our civilised arrival time in Budapest enabled us to walk from our centrally located hotel to the riverside to view the palace which overlooks the Danube River. This is often the starting location for many long-distance riverboats that tour the Eastern European Rivers, which has become popular in recent years.

From Budapest, we travelled to Serbia, and traditional border crossing procedures. Having gathered knowledge of how these borders work after last year’s reconnaissance trip, the borders are a breeze. However, I have a new NZ passport that has the Maori translation of New Zealand on the front cover.

The name “Aotearoa” on the passport raised questions at each subsequent border post since. It will be interesting to see what the immigration and customs officials at the really tough borders think of this.

Yugoslavia, as we knew it a few years ago is broken up into several different countries. Serbia now has an excellent road network down through its centre to facilitate the large amount of intercontinental truck traffic that needs to pass through. However, you do pay for the privilege by paying hefty road tolls on a regular basis.

We stayed in the city of Nis, Serbia’s second largest city. It is a delightful place with a clean swift flowing river running through the middle with lots of interesting buildings and old city wall.

We finished the first part of our journey with a long drive through the remainder of Serbia, into Bulgaria and then into Turkey, tackling three countries in one day with two major border crossings. Entries into Bulgaria and Turkey went well with no issues, generally, as long as the documentation is in order then it is unlikely that problems will be encountered.

It appears that finally officials in the countries that we passed through are realising, or have been instructed, that the tourist dollar (or euro) is key to their survival. The Turkish border crossing took about an hour and a half, I was even greeted by the customs man, whose computer system efficiently linked my registration plate on the green Landcruiser with my name, even before I handed my passport to him. That is scary!

Entering Istanbul is no different to Auckland or Wellington. The traffic queue started 50km out of town, so the last part of a long day, and a 3000km run through Europe day ended at the very comfortable Holiday Inn near the old Topkapi Palace in Istanbul city.

The next leg of our journey starts tomorrow, crossing the Bosporus Bridge into Asia. We pass through Turkey, into Iran, arriving in Tehran for a two night stop. By this time the temperatures will be in the high 30s and will be enjoying kebabs, with no alcohol in sight.

Photos by Greg Paul and Murray Taylor.

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